The European Elections and the Choice of a European Government

, by Lucio Levi

The European Elections and the Choice of a European Government

The most serious weakness of the European Commission – that is, of the institution destined to play the role of European government – lies in its lack of a direct link with the EU’s citizens, and therefore of democratic legitimacy. The EU has an elected Parliament, but Commission members [i.e. the ‘ministers’] are appointed by national governments. Herein lies the root of this institution’s structural weakness.

Yet, direct election of the Commission President could become possible without needing a Treaty change if voters in the European Parliament elections were empowered to choose between two political parties, or two coalitions of political parties, offering alternative programs. Maurice Duverger in his treatise on political parties pointed out the similarity between parliamentary regimes with a bipolar party system – such as the UK, Germany and Spain –, and presidential regimes. In both systems, voters have the power to choose the head of government and his government’s program.

A similar mechanism is needed at the European level, if we are to fill the gap separating the citizens from the European institutions. The key to this change in the EU’s system of government lies in the formation of a European party system. So far, the European Parliament elections have been simply a sum of national elections where the issue at stake has been the relative strength of the political parties at national level. The theme which could successfully stimulate rival political parties to assume a European dimension would be a competition to win control of the European Commission.

Even now after fifty-five years, there is still no agreement on applying the provisions of Art. 138 of the Treaty of Rome concerning the uniform procedure for the election of the European Parliament. Such a procedure would be in accordance with Art. 39 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and would not only authorize but also encourage candidates, especially great political personalities, to stand for election to the position of President of the European Commission, thereby strengthening the European Commission’s democratic legitimacy and enhancing citizens’ trust in it.

Welding national and European policies together can only be achieved through political parties or – more precisely – through a Europewide alignment of political parties in order to gain the citizens’ consent to their policies. In other words, it is necessary to extend political competition to the European level. Albertini’s sharp observation remains relevant in this connection: the point of no return in the European unification process does not lie so much in the formal transfer of this or that competence, nor in this or that change in the architecture of European institutions, but rather in the extension of the competition between political parties to the European level, which will occur when the government of the EU is at stake.

So far there has been no recognition of the fundamental purpose of the European Union elections. They must be more than simply a way of choosing members of the European Parliament. They should also decide who governs the EU. Hence the importance of political parties. With the direct election of the leader of the European executive by the European people, a politicization process of the European Commission will take shape. The Commission’s members would then be appointed by a majority vote in the European Parliament and not, as has so far always been the case, through an agreement between national governments. This political majority would be determined by the European elections, i.e. by the voters’ choice, as expressly stated in Art. 17 of the Lisbon Treaty.

In this way, the Commission’s technocratic character, which has haunted it since its foundation, could be subsided, allowing it to play its important role as the European Union’s executive. The exercise of this role and the close ties with the European Parliament – which has the power to give and revoke its confidence to the Commission – will progressively promote the Commission’s independence vis-à-vis the European Council, i.e. of the national governments, to which so far it has always been subordinate. A reduction in the number of Commission members and cutting the link between the Commissioners and their country of origin will also contribute to the achievement of this goal. On the other hand, the Commission’s monopoly of initiative in European legislation is in line with a general tendency among representative democracies, where governments play a prominent role in legislative initiative.

Another consequence of the politicization of the Commission would be the transfer of the function of “guardian of the treaties” to the European Court of Justice, which, owing to the constitutionalization of the EU, will take on the role of a constitutional court more and more explicitly. It is to be recollected that in federal unions the constitutional court generally has the task of ensuring that the agreed Constitution prevails over all constitutional bodies and more specifically with regard to the distribution of competences between member states and the Union.

Alternatively, the responsibility to ensure uniformity in the application of competition rules and in the exercise of the anti-trust function could be transferred to an independent authority. As the ECB has the task of assuring price stability, so a European antitrust authority should be tasked to supervise competition within the common market. Generally speaking, such institutional developments could be seen as aspects of the progressive affirmation of the principles of constitutionalism and would ensure the separation of powers, a goal so far unreached in the European institutions.

The proposal to assign to the same person the Presidencies of the Commission and of the European Council has innumerable supporters, since it reflects the configuration of executive power in the US Constitution, where the President combines the roles of head of state and head of government. But to apply this model to the European Union would bring serious problems. In particular, the concentration of power in one single constitutional body would be contrary to the present evolutionary development between the EU and its member states, and between the member states themselves. The attempt to create a federation of nation-states is not only ambitious. It is without historical precedent. All the existing federations are unions of cantons, provinces or regions. Never before has a federal union been created which includes countries such as the EU member states – countries which are proud of their independence and which for centuries have dictated the guiding lines of world politics. They represent the most accomplished expression of the idea itself of a sovereign state.

Therefore, the weight and extent of the autonomy of member states in the EU are – and are destined to be – much stronger than in any other precedent. One example is the influence that member states have acquired in the structure of the EU, which cannot exercise either legislative or executive powers without their consent. In fact, national governments participate in the EU’s legislative process through the co-decision power of the Council, and in the executive power through the designation of the President of the Commission by the European Council.

On the other hand, the structure of the European Council, understood as the collegial Presidency of the EU, was designed in order that all the nations could be represented at the top of the Union. Therefore, the proposal to award the role of head of state and of government to one single person – belonging to one single nation out of 27 – could be a source of conflict and division rooted in national sentiments and could be perceived as an unacceptable concentration of powers in the hands of the leader of the European executive, and thus incompatible with the multinational character of the EU. In fact, the stable Presidency of the European Council (for a duration of two and a half years), renewable once, was established by the Lisbon Treaty to give more coherence and continuity to the activity of this body and designed to receive a national mandate distinct from the European responsibilities of the President of the Commission.

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